The adaptation of Korean post-apocalyptic film “Snowpiercer” into an American television series took a tumultuous, multiyear journey. And that was even before the coronavirus pandemic brought a dose of real-life calamity into the world right before launch.
Now TNT is about to premiere a show about people isolated indoors in order to survive a world gone mad, just as audiences are experiencing somewhat similar circumstances. But rather than shelve the show, the network is leaning into the unexpected timing, and has even moved up the premiere from May 31 to May 17.
“People are home watching television,” says Brett Weitz, general manager of TNT, TBS and TruTV. “They want an escape, and they want entertainment. No matter what’s happening, people want that disconnect. Although this is a far-fetched premise, I think in this day and age it’s become a little less far-fetched but still an escape. People will want to sit back and watch [‘Snowpiercer’] with more of a moment of acknowledgment and a sense of understanding because of what we’re all dealing with right now.”
“Snowpiercer” already faced showrunner changes (from Josh Friedman to Graeme Manson), two directors (Scott Derrickson and then James Hawes), network swaps (from TNT to TBS and back again) and a delayed launch date before finally making it to air — right in the middle of a global pandemic.
“I found in my career it’s the easy ones that rarely work out,” says executive producer Marty Adelstein, whose Tomorrow Studios obtained the rights to turn the film into a TV show. “It’s the ones that you really have to pour your heart and soul in — that you have all these obstacles that you overcome because you’re so passionate about the story and the material — that are really the special ones. And I really feel that way about this.”
Just two months ago, it appeared TNT had caught a break in timing: Bong Joon Ho, the director of the 2013 film from which the series was adapted, became the toast of Hollywood thanks to the Oscar-winning success of “Parasite.” Like “Parasite,” “Snowpiercer” deals with issues of class and social injustice — in this case, via a post-apocalyptic tale of the final humans crammed aboard a bullet train and looking to survive as they circle a frozen world. Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly star in the show.
But timing is everything, and now that we’re actually living in a semi-dystopian world, the truth of our new reality could either help or hinder interest in the show — depending on how audiences are actually feeling when “Snowpiercer” finally premieres. “I think [audiences] have seen their world shaken upside down, and they’re going to really relate to this and tune in to this,” Adelstein says.
Manson admits he goes back and forth on whether it’s a good moment to launch. “I do believe that for some people this is too close to home right now,” he says. “But then, I think that people do like experiences, these escapes that we go on when we commit to a series these days, when they’re cutting close to the bone. The message becomes more important — some of these deeper themes about class division, migration, detention, incarceration.”
“Snowpiercer” is one of several post-apocalyptic shows that have been announced for this year. Others include: AMC’s next “Walking Dead” spinoff series, “World Beyond,” originally slated for April 12 but pushed to later this year; CBS All Access’ “The Stand,” based on a Stephen King novel about a plague that decimates the world’s population and on deck for fall; and FX’s “Y,” slated to start shooting this month but delayed by the coronavirus-generated work stoppage.
Although audiences might be turned off by such intense storytelling at this moment, early stats appear to show just the opposite. At the outset of the pandemic, Netflix viewers flocked to the 1995 film “Outbreak,” about the Ebola crisis, and “2012,” the 2009 movie about cataclysmic events signaling the end of the world, according to the streamer’s chart of most-watched programs.
“I think audiences will always have a hunger for post-apocalyptic stories because they typically offer hope or some resolution,” says Neal Baer, who executive produced Season 3 of Netflix’s Kiefer Sutherland White House drama “Designated Survivor” and gave it a pandemic storyline. “Most post-apocalyptic shows or movies may be bleak, but they’re about the struggle to survive — and we latch onto the hope of better days that they offer.”
End-of-the-world series became a hallmark of TV in the 2010s, led by “The Walking Dead,” which became the most-watched basic cable show in history. At its height, the zombie series dominated all of TV in adults 18-49, including everything on the broadcast networks. Other dystopian tales that made a splash in the past decade were Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” NBC’s “Revolution,” USA’s “Colony,” Syfy’s “12 Monkeys,” The CW’s “The 100” and even Fox’s comedy “The Last Man on Earth.”
TNT found success with two shows in the subgenre: the alien-invasion thriller “Falling Skies” and the action-adventure “The Last Ship,” about the Navy crew on a vessel tasked with saving humanity after a pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population.
Given the sudden relevance of “The Last Ship,” TNT has started airing three episodes of the series (which ran from 2014 to 2018) every Tuesday at midnight.
“That was a show about heroism and the perseverance to survive,” Weitz says, “and a noble cause at the center of it and a great hero. We’ll see how ‘Last Ship’ continues to do. People want the hero. They want the person who’s leading the charge.”
Also back in the spotlight is last year’s National Geographic series “The Hot Zone,” based on the true story of Dr. Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies) as she worked to halt a potential Ebola virus outbreak in the U.S.
“I’m definitely getting a lot of phone calls, texts and emails from friends asking about ‘The Hot Zone’ and what I know about viruses,” says executive producer Kelly Souders. “We really tried to get scientific facts in front of people in a way that hopefully was engaging. There’s definitely information you can take away from it, even though it was based in 1989, and what they knew about viruses is different than what they know now. … I feel like the timing is great to go back and watch Season 1.”
Fellow “Hot Zone” exec producer Brian Peterson says there’s no chance they’ll tackle COVID-19 in a future season. “I feel like this is kind of on par with 9/11, like it is way too soon to be delving into that,” he says. “I think it would be very difficult, given how sensitive it is right now, but I’m sure it will be done.”
Adelstein says he expects there to continue to be an appetite for “good” post-apocalyptic stories, but “I don’t think the gratuitous ones are going to necessarily be what people want to watch.”
Instead, as with most successful entries in the space, viewers will look to shows where they can root for a hero who saves the world, through an allegorical prism of the current political climate.
“How is it relevant to not just now but also the universal human condition?” Manson says. “I never wanted to do a pandemic story on ‘Snowpiercer’ — it almost seemed too easy. So I’m glad we’re not staring it right in the face. But all of these societal and political cracks that we see with the current COVID-19 situation, those are the same cracks that are being tested and questioned for the future on ‘Snowpiercer.’ It’s a time to look hard at how we got here, which I think is one sort of positive.”